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by Russell Galen

First published in Writers Digest, January 1992
Copyright 1992 by F&W Publications, Inc.

ith all the emphasis on getting first novels read by agents and editors, there’s a worse problem: of those that are read, only one out of a hundred is read to the end.

It’s a symptom of the newly increased workload for publishing people, the pressure to get maximum productivity and profit out of one’s time.

The books which agents and editors abandon in the middle aren’t necessarily inferior to the ones they read through to the end. Strongly-plotted manuscripts force you to finish, and so are sometimes taken on in preference to better-written manuscripts which lack a strong plot. Strong plotting was out of fashion for a long time, and now that it’s back in, new writers aren’t giving it enough attention. How do you create a strong plot? The key is the process of identification.

People read novels in the first place for what I call astral projection, the power to visit another world while staying safely in one’s armchair. Good fiction enables you to visit a reality different from your own. Even if you were to stay as close to home as possible - let’s say, a novel about you by your spouse - you’d be travelling far and wide, into the perspective of another human being. Would such a novel be any less exotic to you than the most bizarre science fiction?

All the standard techniques of fiction go into enabling astral projection, but the most important is identification: causing you, the reader, to feel that what is happening to a character is happening to you. Without it you are an observer in the action; with it you are a participant.

There are two aspects to creating identification.

The first is viewpoint. Readers have a natural tendency to identify with the character in whose head you’ve put them. The associated danger is that taking them out of that character’s head interrupts the spell. Switching viewpoints can be a powerful technique in the hands of a master, but, done poorly, is one of the most common reasons first novels are rejected. Just as I’m beginning to identify with a character, the writer will yank me out of there and put me into someone else’s head, then repeat the process a few times before returning me to the first character. Readers can’t identify with several characters with the intensity they can with one, and the interruptions prevent us from identifying fully with any particular one.

The second is to create a rooting interest. Imagine you’re watching a bout between two unknown boxers. Maybe winning is of life-or-death importance for them, but not you. Now imagine one of them is your brother or son, or better, has promised you the prize money which you need for a life-saving operation. Now you’re rooting madly for your guy to win. By sharing your fate with the fighter your two identities merge: you enter into his shoes and are affected by his triumphs and failures as deeply as he is. You’re no longer a spectactor, you’re a boxer. Astral projection.

To create that effect in a book we need to create that shared identity where the reader feels his own fate hangs on what happens to the character. To do that, we need a character capable of inspiring sympathy, and then put him into a conflict. Because he’s sympathetic, we’ll take his side in the conflict.

To ignite that favoritism into a rooting interest, we give the character a powerful and meaningful desire to prevail in the conflict. The more he needs to prevail, the more the reader becomes caught up in the conflict. The conflict can be as tiny as saving a two-foot patch of garden, but if the character needs his garden so deeply that the consequences of failure are unacceptable, a strong story can be built around it. If the character would merely like to save his garden, but could live without it, we don’t have the stuff of a rooting interest. Desire is the muscle of strong plots, and the lack of it is the most common failing in weak ones: the reader says, “Who cares”?

We now come to what I call engagement: the moment at which the reader buys into all of the above, that is, begins to root for the character and care about the outcome. Our true enjoyment of the book - the moment at which astral projection begins - begins at the point of engagement. If we become engaged on page 2, page 1 will be a little boring, but readers will give us that, and a bit more, but not that much more. Dozens of times a year I reject novels which postpone the point of engagement beyond my point of tolerance. Be sure to locate the moment of engagement in your story, the moment when the reader’s rooting interest begins, and make sure it doesn’t come too late; failure to do so is a prime reason for manuscripts being abandoned unfinished.

After engagement comes the struggle, the character’s fight to prevail in whatever conflict you’ve set up. He faces obstacles, he defeats some, is defeated by others. If we’re rooting for him we will hang on every word.

Finally, satisfaction: a resolution of the struggle which leaves the reader feeling content. Since we’ve been rooting for our character, we won’t feel satisfied unless he gets something out of the struggle. He might prevail. He might not, but get something of value anyway, such as experience, wisdom, maturity. If your aim is to write a strongly plotted book, be sure your ending resolves the struggle in a satisfying way.

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